Born in 1844, Menelik II was one of the most celebrated of Ethiopia’s rulers, and led the most successful campaign of African resistance to repel the onslaught of European colonialism.
Menelik’s reign (1889-1913) coincided with the European Scramble for Africa. After serving as governor of Shoa for twenty-five years, Menelik became emperor in 1889. During his reign, he doubled the area he inherited, incorporating vast areas of southern Ethiopia into his domain, mainly through conquest.
Always eager to embrace new technology in his quest to modernize ancient Ethiopia, Menelik’s innovations were unprecedented in Ethiopian history. Among these were first and foremost the creation of the capital, Addis Ababa, in the mid 1880s; construction of modern bridges and telegraph lines; concession for a railroad; establishment of the bank of Abyssinia, the first hotel, hospitals, and schools; national currency; mint; a postal system and national newspaper.
Italy, with a colony already established in Eritrea, had designs on Ethiopia. In 1889, Ethiopia and Italy negotiated the Treaty of Wuchale. Written in Amharic and Italian, the most significant article of the treaty was viewed differently by both parties. The Amharic text stated that Italy’s services were available to the emperor for all communications with foreign powers, while the Italian text made this compulsory.
Italy applied this article to claim a protectorate over Ethiopia, which was duly recognized by the European powers. To affirm their claim, the Italians, aided and abetted by the French and British, advanced into northern Ethiopia and, in January 1890, occupied the town of Adowa.
While the dispute was being debated, Menelik was simultaneously importing large amounts of arms from France and Russia, and continuing to expand his domain. Finally expressing his disapproval of the Treaty of Wuchale and Italy’s fallacious claim, he informed the European powers that “Ethiopia has need of no one, she stretches her hand unto God.”
Recognizing his country’s sovereignty, religion, and way of life was at stake, Menelik mobilized his army. The confrontation occurred at Adowa on March 1, 1896, where Ethiopia decisively defeated the Italian invaders. It was the first major African victory over an European Army since Hannibal’s time two thousand years before. On October 16, 1896, the Italians agreed to The Peace Treaty of Addis Ababa, which nullified the Treaty of Wuchale and recognized the absolute independence of Ethiopia.
Menelik maintained his independence and unified his country by defeating the Europeans. Ethiopia’s international prestige in the world was enhanced and its victory over the Europeans provided Africans in the Diaspora with a much-needed source of pride, inspiration and hope.
Menelik displayed great foresight in developing his military strength, which proved to be considerably superior to the Italian army he encountered, and also in using European trade and technology without yielding any political ground. In addition, his diplomatic maneuvers exploited the greed of Italy, France, and Britain and shrewdly played them off against each other.
After a lengthy illness, he died in 1913.